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Edward Munoz v. Michael J. Astrue

December 9, 2011

EDWARD MUNOZ,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION,
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Suzanne H. Segal United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Edward Munoz ("Plaintiff") brings this action seeking to overturn the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (hereinafter the "Commissioner" or the "Agency") denying his applications for Social Security Income benefits ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). The parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636©, to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Agency is AFFIRMED.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff applied for SSI and DIB on September 25, 2007 alleging a disability onset date of June 1, 2005. (Administrative Record ("AR") 75-77). The Agency denied Plaintiff's initial application for DIB and SSI on February 5, 2008, (AR 51), and denied reconsideration on June 18, 2008. (AR 57). Plaintiff then requested a hearing, (AR 64), which was held on January 8, 2009 before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), (AR 69), where Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (AR 25, 28-42). On February 25, 2009, the ALJ denied benefits. (AR 11-24). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision on February 8, 2011, (AR 1), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Agency. Plaintiff then filed the instant action.

III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was 47 years old at the time of his alleged disability onset date. (AR 75). He can speak, understand, and write in English. (AR 90). Additionally, Plaintiff can dress and bathe himself as well as garden and perform woodworking. (AR 262).

A. Plaintiff's Medical History

Plaintiff has a history of high blood pressure, anemia, hepatitis C, as well as cirrhosis secondary to alcohol use for 20 years. (AR 192, 253-54, 261, 296, 434). Additionally, Plaintiff has been treated for hepatitis A, cataract in his right eye, and a bullet wound in his elbow. (Id.). Plaintiff has a long history of heroin, marijuana and alcohol abuse. (AR 192-93, 196, 211, 249, 253, 254, 262, 264, 277, 300, 457).

The majority of Plaintiff's medical records derive from visits to LAC-USC Medical Center from June 2007 to July 2009. (AR 183-244, 289-324, 419-510). During that time, Plaintiff frequently sought psychological treatment from Dr. Rongey. On March 13, 2008, Dr. Rongey noted Plaintiff's "increased forgetfulness and slight asterixis," and recommended lactulose for treatment. (AR 308, 473). Subsequently, Dr. Rongey opined that Plaintiff's problems with forgetfulness "may be secondary to long standing alcohol abuse or . . . sleep disturbances." (AR 300, 466). On November 6, 2008, Dr. Rongey noted improved mentation after starting lactulose. (AR 296, 462).

On April 4, 2009, Dr. Rongey noted that Plaintiff had a recent lapse in sobriety noting that Plaintiff "began to drink alcohol again," and began "using vicodin and two weeks ago used Marijuana." (AR 457). Plaintiff further "resumed use of injecting heroin." (Id.). Dr. Rongey also noted that Plaintiff's March "tox screen returned positive for opiates [and] amphetamines." (Id.) During a follow up visit, Dr. Chan again noted improved mentation with lactulose and noted that Plaintiff has been "clean since March 2009 except for Vicodin for arm pain." (AR 450).

B. Psychiatric Examinations

On January 7, 2008, Dr. Rosa Colonna, a consultative clinical psychologist, conducted a complete psychological evaluation. (AR 260-65). Plaintiff confided that he did not have a prior history of mental illness. (AR 261). Plaintiff also stated that he "used heroin and alcohol and stopped using alcohol several months prior to the examination and heroin two years ago." (AR 262). Based on test results and clinical data, Dr. Colonna diagnosed Plaintiff with polysubstance dependence in remission from self-reporting, personality disorder with antisocial traits, and assessed Plaintiff with a GAF score of 60. (AR 264). Dr. Colonna also noted that Plaintiff's "overall cognitive ability appears to be low average." (Id.). Specifically, Plaintiff "would be able to understand, remember and carry out short, simplistic instructions without difficulty" and be able to "make simplistic work-related decisions without special supervision." (Id.). Additionally, she concluded that Plaintiff "would be able to interact appropriately with supervisors, co-workers and peers" and "appear[s] able to manage finances on his own." (Id.). Dr. Colonna recommended a sober lifestyle free of drug use. (Id.).

On January 29, 2008, Dr. Elizabeth Harrison, completed a Psychiatric Review Technique report. (AR 271). Dr. Harrison determined that Plaintiff had a polysubstance abuse disorder in remission. (AR 277). Further, she asserted that Plaintiff had mild limitations in social functioning and daily activities, and moderate limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace without any episodes of decompensation. (AR 279). According to Dr. Harrison, Plaintiff had no limitation in his ability to understand and perform simple instructions, and he could work without special supervision. (AR 282). Further, Dr. Harrison asserted that Plaintiff was not significantly limited in social interactions related to work, and that Plaintiff could respond appropriately to changes in the work setting. (AR 283).

C. Vocational Expert's Testimony

Ms. Jane Halle, a vocational expert, testified at Plaintiff's 2009 hearing. (AR 42-45). Ms. Halle testified that a person similarly situated to Plaintiff who is limited to light work and prevented from performing work requiring binocular vision would not be able to perform Plaintiff's past relevant work. (AR 43-44). However, she confirmed that such a person could perform unskilled work given those restrictions, and that there were available unskilled jobs in the local and national economy. (AR 44). Moreover, Ms. Halle asserted there would be "very minimal" adjustment in learning how to perform these jobs. (AR 45).

D. Plaintiff's Testimony

At the 2009 hearing, Plaintiff testified that he worked for Roger Floyd doing air conditioning and refrigeration repair for many years. (AR 30). He frequently carried 100 pound bags of cement and worked in tight spaces. (AR 30-31). Subsequently, Plaintiff took a job as a caretaker for a friend in 2006. (AR 29). He lives in his own house, but his mom and girlfriend prepare his meals and clean for him. (AR 32). Plaintiff confirmed that he had abused heroin as recent as 2007 but testified he is no longer using heroin. (AR 33). Additionally, Plaintiff confirmed that he also abused alcohol. (AR 34). When asked why he could no longer work, Plaintiff asserted that he "started slowing down and then [get] real sleepy and lazy on the job. . . ." (AR 34-35). Further, Plaintiff claimed he cannot stand too long without swelling of his ankles. (AR 35). According to Plaintiff, he is constantly fatigued because of his hepatitis C condition. (AR 37). Plaintiff asserted that he takes medication for "forgetfulness", and that his vision is impaired in his right eye from a cataract. (AR 41).

IV.

THE FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must demonstrate a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that prevents her from engaging in substantial gainful activity and that is expected to *fn1 result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 721 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). The impairment must render the claimant incapable of performing the work she previously performed and incapable of performing any other substantial gainful employment that exists in the national economy. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)).

To decide if a claimant is entitled to benefits, an ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry. 20 C.F.R. ...


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